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By Marc Peraino. September 7, 2016 - 4:19 pm
Mental health is a difficult subject to discuss due to a lack of understanding among the general public. There is heavy stigma that hangs over those afflicted with problems like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. And while mental illness is no joke, comedian and actress Maria Bamford knows how to make it one.
Bamford isn’t letting stigma get in her way as she tackles her own personal mental health issues in her new Netflix series “Lady Dynamite” with some of the best and most outrageous humor on TV.
Bamford, who was born in Duluth, Minn., is an award-winning comic, actress, and voice actress known for playing the voices of characters on shows like Cartoon Network’s “Adventure Time” and Nickelodeon’s “CatDog.” By utilizing impersonations of her family members and stories about her experiences with mental illness, Bamford’s stand-up act has been described as “surreal.” Although the comedian was formally diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder II back in 2011, she has struggled with depression and anxiety her whole life.
Playing herself, Bamford shows the viewer the ups and downs of life with bipolar disorder in the entertainment industry, which she tries her best to navigate with the help of her kind, yet spineless agent Bruce Ben-Bacharach (Fred Melamed). The show is chock full of famous actors and comedians, which include: Ana Gastayer of “Saturday Night Live” fame, Dean Cain, Bridget Everett, Jenny Slate, and Maureen “Mo” Collins from “MadTV.” The show also features a wide range of guest stars from Sarah Silverman and Tig Notaro to Adam Pally and Judd Apatow.
By mixing Bamford’s comedic style with real-life experiences and caricatures of her family and friends, “Lady Dynamite” offers a hilarious and rather honest window into Bamford’s life. Using flashbacks, “Lady Dynamite” juxtaposes her past experiences recovering from a hypomanic episode and her own personal mistakes with present-day challenges that allow her to grow and adapt. In classic karmic fashion, life continues to grant Bamford second chances to redeem herself and make healthy choices, pushing her beyond the disappointments and regrets of the past.
In one of my favorite scenes, Bamford shows viewers a flashback of her time in the psychiatric unit in Duluth following her mental break. We see her at a table making art therapy collages with other psychiatric patients. What makes this scene so funny is that Bamford hits the nail on the head in her portrayal of mental health care, poking fun at an otherwise depressing situation.
Stephnie Weir, another “MadTV” alumnus, plays the role of group counselor perfectly, supervising the art therapy. She’s passive-aggressive, annoyed with some of the other inpatients, and her main goal is to get Bamford to express her anger. As someone with firsthand knowledge of the mental health system, I found this scene to be the most expertly crafted satire of mental illness and the craziness (no pun intended) of it all. Bamford eventually expresses her anger, but hits a raw nerve with the therapist in doing so.
Bamford portrays a character who is relatable on so many levels. She struggles with things that just about everyone struggles with: romance and the fear of vulnerability, pressure to succeed in her career, negotiating with the needs and desires of others, confronting friends who behave more like bullies, wrestling with the stigma of mental illness and learning to respect herself and listen to her own voice.
One particular experience involves Bamford’s childhood friend in Duluth, Susan (Collins). Susan is jealous of Bamford’s
success as a comic and voice actress and talks down to her most of the time. Bamford tends to let Susan walk all over her in the name of friendship, but when it’s time to face the truth that Susan is a bully, Bamford must decide whether it’s more important to stand up to Susan or continue to placate her so-called friend. At other times, she must learn to deal with her former casting agent Karen Grisham (Gastayer), whose aggressive personality and foul mouth pushes Bamford to make money at the expense of her own health and integrity.
While the comedy of “Lady Dynamite” is outrageous and at times crude, the scenarios Bamford deals with are pretty universal and encouraging as we see someone lay it all out in both an honest and highly creative manner. She also grows throughout each episode, which creates a more realistic and dynamic character. While I don’t necessarily gravitate towards crude humor, I can appreciate the crudeness within the right context. In this case, the context is the insanity of the entertainment industry.
“Lady Dynamite” is fearless in showing the world what it means to suffer from mental illness, the struggle of recovery, the fears of relapse and the skill it takes to balance personal health, new relationships and professional obligations all at the same time. Simply put, Bamford kisses stigma goodbye and celebrates life.
Perhaps the theme of “Lady Dynamite” is best summed up in the country Western ballad that plays at the end of every episode with the words, “I don’t know what I’m doing more than half of the time.”
“Lady Dynamite” is available for streaming on Netflix.
Marc Peraino reviews TV shows and movies for Kalamalama.
Photo courtesy of Netflix Media Center